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Session 1999-2000
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Standing Committee Debates
Northen Ireland Grand Committee Debates

State of Northern Ireland Agriculture

Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Thursday 13 April 2000


[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Occupational Therapy (Lagan Valley)

2.30 pm

1. Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): What action the Government will take to reduce waiting lists for occupational therapy assessments in Lagan Valley. [118121]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): Responsibility for reducing waiting lists lies with Down-Lisburn trust and the eastern health and social services board. In the past year, the trust increased staffing by one whole-time equivalent occupational therapist. The board is conducting a root and branch review of the occupational therapy service throughout the area to inform future commissioning decisions.

Mr. Donaldson: I thank the Minister for that reply. However, people in the Down-Lisburn trust area are having to wait for up to a year for occupational therapy assessments to be carried out. They are having to wait in hospital beds until they are able to receive an adequate package for care in the community that will enable them to return to their homes. These problems are costing the health service an enormous amount. Surely there must be some way in which adequate resources can be targeted at reducing the waiting lists for occupational therapy assessments and for care in the community packages. That would enable people who are waiting for vital equipment to be installed to have it installed. It would also allow people who are waiting to return home after a stay in hospital to do so, so that hospital beds can be freed for patients on other waiting lists.

Mr. Ingram: I have to recognise that funding is an issue; there is no question about that, although the same argument applies throughout the health sector. It is for boards and trusts to determine funding priorities in the light of what they judge to be the needs of the local population. As I said, additional resources have been put into the occupational therapy service to meet growing demand. Although the occupational therapy service has increased substantially the number of assessments that it is undertaking, demand continues to rise. Housing adaptations are a particular cause of that increase, as more and more dependent people are being helped to live at home rather than in residential accommodation.

The Budget made available £53 million of additional resources. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is currently engaged in intensive discussions with interested parties within the health sector, health professionals and trade unions to consider the disbursement of that money. I shall take note of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and ensure that my hon. Friend is aware of his concerns.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): Will the Minister direct his attention to the contrast between the Government's policy on waiting lists on this side of the water and their policy in Northern Ireland? On this side of the water, reduced waiting lists have been a key part of the Labour party's policy. It publishes targets and information on them and we regularly hear arguments about their precise circumstances. Why have no target or waiting list figures ever been published in Northern Ireland? Are not Northern Ireland's waiting lists longer than those of Great Britain? Why is it that that, even though more is spent per capita on the health service in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain, the results are poorer?

Mr. Ingram: I cannot confirm or deny off the top of my head the detail—

Mr. Trimble: I am right.

Mr. Ingram: Well, the right hon. Gentleman always claims to be right. At some stage, we shall have to debate that, but I am sure that he appreciates that this is not one of the areas for which I have direct responsibility. I take note of his point about the publication of targets, from which flows consideration of how the key critical aspects of the problems should be tackled. I know that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) is earnestly and determinedly trying to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive is reinstated. The issue under discussion would of course be one of those for which responsibility would fall to a devolved assembly, which could tackle particular local needs according to the resources that have been allocated. I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, and I shall pass them on to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Can the Minister assure me that sufficient attention will be given to the lack of adequate replacements for occupational therapists who are absent from work? Such therapists might not have the mobility to carry out assessment because of genuine illness or might be on longterm maternity leave. Will proper account be taken of the need for substitute and replacement occupational therapists to cover those who are not at work? Will he also assure me that the long waiting list in Lagan valley and across the Province is not part of an engineered outcome to ensure that recommendations meet the budget that is allocated?

Mr. Ingram: We all share a common aim. We want to ensure that the health service provides an adequate—and hopefully more than adequate—service in those critical areas. However, getting trained and qualified staff throughout the health service is an important issue. It is sometimes easier said than done. The Government have initiated a number of approaches to improve the quality and strengthen the number of qualified personnel to take account of absences, including maternity leave. However, I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's point to the attention of my ministerial colleague. I share his concerns.

2. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): What assessment he has made of the likelihood of decommissioning, as required by the Belfast Agreement, being completed by the May deadline.[118124]

Mr. Ingram: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has put on record the Government's view that the realistic prospects for completing decommissioning by 22 May are poor. He has also put on record that decommissioning remains an essential part of the agreement on which we need to make progress as soon as possible. Clearly there must be confidence on all sides that the guns are silenced for good.

Mr. Robathan: Good Friday is coming soon. It was a little earlier two year's ago. It is unlikely that decommissioning will be complete within the next six weeks. That is part of the Belfast agreement, which stands or falls as an entirety. It applies to loyalist and republican weapons, but the Minister will agree that the IRA is the key. Will he confirm—he might be unwilling to do so—intelligence reports of many years that McGuinness and Adams have been, and possibly are, on the IRA army council? What discussions has he had with McGuinness and Adams to suggest that they might use their votes to ensure that IRA weapons are handed in? If a substantial number of weapons are not decommissioned by 22 May, will the entire agreement collapse?

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam.

The Chairman: Order. I shall take points of order after questions.

Mr. Ingram: The Government never confirm or deny matters relating to intelligence information for good reasons that the hon. Gentleman should recognise. As for moving the process forward, all interested parties at the forefront of the discussions have made every effort to find a new determined will to make progress. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, with the help and support of the United States Administration, are doing everything possible to find a new framework to take the process forward.

I mentioned the importance of decommissioning. It will not go away. It needs to be addressed. We want the guns and the private armies from whatever quarter, whether republican or so-called loyalist, removed from Northern Ireland society. Only by doing that can we achieve real lasting peace.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I was encouraged during Northern Ireland questions yesterday by the Minister's answer that 22 May was a target rather than the whole purpose of the process. Does he agree that we must ensure that people keep their eye on the ultimate goal of lasting peace rather than on the staging posts? Will he comment on the need to have formal round-table talks now? I ask that because informal talks do not have the same gravitas.

Mr. Ingram: Lasting peace is the objective of everyone in the House—there is no question about that—but it is not a desire of everyone in Northern Ireland. We have seen all too graphically the attempts made by dissident republican groups to try to destabilise the peace. There are many instances of violence of a different nature on the so-called loyalist side; the consequences could none the less still be potent.

We must bear that in mind as we move the process forward. All-party talks are part of the on-going process. There are several bilateral and multilateral discussions between the parties. Several parties sometimes feel disengaged from the process, but they have regular contact with Ministers and, of their own volition, have contact with the other major parties involved in the discussions. Everyone is a part of the overall process. All the pro-agreement parties can bring something to the table and it is a matter of judgment as to when—if at all—such an approach might be adopted as a means of reaching conclusions. The approach is not the only option for reaching the ultimate conclusion that we all seek.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): Will the Minister turn his mind back to the previous occasion on which the Government and the parties formally addressed the issues, which was in the Mitchell review? Will he recall that the Mitchell review ended last November on the basis that we would proceed to devolution as quickly as possible—which we did—and that decommissioning would follow as soon as possible? That was said by George Mitchell to be the position of all the parties and of the Government. Does the Minister recall that, at that time, the Secretary of State said clearly and publicly that, if there were a failure to act by any party in accordance with those understandings, the Government would ensure that those who defaulted would not gain by virtue of such default? Is the Government's position still that those who default should not benefit from that default?

The Minister may be aware that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) has confirmed today in The Irish Times that there was a clear understanding that decommissioning should begin by 31 January. The time scale was two months. Does the Minister agree that, if people then talk about having longer time scales or no time scales at all, that would constitute enabling those who defaulted to benefit by virtue of their intransigence, and that that would be wrong?

Does the Minister share my concern about the way in which the Irish Government, and the new Irish Foreign Minister in particular, seem to have gone out of their way since 11 February to give as much comfort as possible to those who defaulted? They have done little to honour the understandings and undertakings given by the Government in November of last year.


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